Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Saturday, September 27, 2014

My Judgey Tangent Post About How TAs should dress (to teach and get a job)

I've had three separate conversations the last few weeks, that have all been racing in a circle in my head:
  • one of the grad students said she found this blog, and found it helpful (yeah!)
  • had a conversation about the lack of professional dress of TAs
  • have been attending job seekers workshops
They've circled around and collapsed onto themselves for this-
Now, I'm not a fuddy duddy, but I am 38, and have had a series of "real" jobs that require "real,"  adult clothes. So I know a little about trying to present yourself as a professional. Dressing like an adult. For a job. To be taken seriously by others.

There's a separate argument/post to be made about the nature of slut shaming (or just follow this- don't do it). And this is not that post. What people wear in their free time is completely not my concern. If you think fishnets, and shorts, and platform shoes, or no shirt, torn shorts, and flip flops are a necessary fashion statement, I could care less. And outside of a work environment women should be free to wear whatever they want free from harassment and acts of aggression.
Personally, I wear geek t-shirts and sweatpants and jeans in my free time.
But I don't wear them to work. I don't wear them to teach in. I don't wear them to work functions. Because that's not what grown ups do.

My first year teaching in NYC we were all given the professional dress speech, and a lot rolled their eyes. We had teachers with tattoos, and piercings, so we weren't stuffy by any means. But even we looked down on the guy who wore Hawaiian shirts, jeans, and Birkenstocks to teach every day his first year. One part of the speech I did get was that if you looked particularly young, it was a good idea to make sure you couldn't be mistaken for a student (for a myriad of reasons in a fairly tough Brooklyn high school). For most this was easy- we were all Anglo in a school with three Anglo Polish kids out of 1000+. But I understood the point, which I think goes hand in hand with not trying to be their friends.

Bill Maher has a great little rant about not judging a book by its cover- BUT THAT'S WHAT THE COVER IS FOR.

Now, in my idealistic, raised-by-a-hippie world, people are judged by the content of their character, the strength of their morals, and their kindness towards others. But that is not the world we live in. And this may be why these three encounters stick in my mind, because I keep thinking about the point of all this- which is to be taken seriously enough that someone will offer a job that will end all our troubles (or at least let us eat) and let us discuss literature until the end of our days.

And then I look around me, and wonder how much we're prepared to be accepted in that way.

When I taught in a rural, Southern high school, I had to conform to more traditional  ideas of professional dress for women. I was once told by a senior teacher I wasn't "dressed" appropriately because I didn't wear lipstick.
I hated it. I always felt I was being asked to conform to someone else's standards, I was never comfortable, and knew I was judged by it because I self-confess to having no fashion sense (my idea of shopping is to find something I like the feel of and buy one in three different colors). Once I had tenure I shifted to button down shirts and slacks which was better, and once I became department chair it was suits which was even better.

Now that I am at a university, it's a little different. Mainly because I feel as though as long as I am dressed professionally, I'm not being judged for not necessarily following gender norms.
I dress like this on days I teach:
Do we see the pattern? It's always a button down shirt, with a tie, and jeans or boots, and depending on the weather a vest or sweater. Albuquerque rarely allows for a jacket as well (for like 30 seconds in November) but I wear those when the weather lets me.

For the record- I'm not a gender bender by nature, and I'm not making a statement about my sexuality. There's a short answer reason why I dress this way, and the answer I give most people- girl clothes are stupid. Men's clothes are cheaper, more comfortable, and last longer.

The longer answer is that I find the patriarchal norms by which women are judged for professional dress ridiculous- hair styled, make up, clothes must be in style and fit a trend, high heels. I find these standards, and the time/money women spend living up to them LUDICROUS. Some women claim to like it. And that's fine. I do not judge them for it. But I refuse to participate in a cycle which I think continues to tell women that they are only as valuable as their looks, and what they physically present. And if you want to start an argument about how this isn't true, read this and the fifty gagillion other studies that say the same thing in addition to the anecdotal evidence from female TAs and professors and how they get judged and treated differently based on looks. You'll get no such stories from the men.
On days where I just have office hours, I tend to wear "business casual" which means a blouse/sweater and slacks. I read on one of the higher ed blogs/articles years ago (have looked for two hours for the damn link and can't find it- if you can please post in comments) that he dressed a little more "approachable" on office hours days- a sweater rather than a tie so students would perhaps feel more comfortable talking to him. That's actually a pretty good reason, so I follow it.

There's also the very real concept that as TAs and graduate students, particularly PhD students, we're in a weird limbo land where we are still students, but also transitioning into a world where soon we will ask our professors and faculty to see us as peers. That means getting rid of the mentality that your clothes/hair/make up should scream how different you are. You know what I'm learned in my years on this planet? If you're different, and your ideas are special I'll know after about five minutes of talking to you.
I originally had a different version of this, but after good points made by a Twitter friend, I decided to replace with one that was more the point I was trying to make.

Your spiked hair, overdone make up with white see through top with black lace bra underneath, untucked and/or wrinkled shirt, frayed pants, or pants with holes in them, unbrushed or unkempt hair/beard do not tell me you're different.

They tell me you don't take your job seriously.
They tell me you're slovenly.
They tell me you think you don't have to conform to professional norms.
They tell me you think in some way you're above all this.

And to me, that makes me wonder about work ethic, pulling your own weight on projects, and exactly how seriously you take your own teaching/work.

None of those are good things.

Now, those are all judgey things. And if I saw any of the above on the street, I wouldn't think twice. But in a classroom? A work environment? A meeting? An interview? That's a different ball of wax.
There comes a time where it's time to put aside childish things. Grad school, and the job market seems like that time.

So put aside the band t-shirts and ripped jeans and save them for the weekends. Search the Internet and Goodwill stores for professional dress ideas that won't break your pitiful TA budget. Start dressing for the job that all too soon you'll be competing against (in some cases) anywhere from 100-900 other people for. Your professors will notice. Other faculty will notice. Your students will notice. And in this job market, you shouldn't be doing anything that can take you out of the running when it's such an easy fix.

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